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    How to Help Your Teen Pick a College – and Stay Sane!

    Posted by Eloise Lushina

    The college admissions process can feel overwhelming for you and your teen. As a parent, you play a crucial role in guiding your child through this process. But where do you start? How do you balance their goals and dreams with practical considerations like cost, location, and academic quality? Although helping your teen pick a college seems overwhelming, it doesn't have to be!

    This blog breaks down the process into seven steps for guiding your child through the college decision process easily and seamlessly.

    Step One: Start the college conversation early

    Ideally, start talking about college during your teen's sophomore year of high school because once your teen begins their junior year, it's time to get serious! With some "early action" college application deadlines at the end of their junior year summer, talking about your child’s interests, strengths, and career aspirations sooner (not later) is a good idea.

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. has over 5,000 colleges — that’s a lot to choose from. But early, ongoing conversations with your child will make it easier to eliminate bad fits and narrow down the list of possibilities.

    Not sure where to start the conversation? Ask questions like:

    • What subjects do you enjoy most at school?
    • What type of careers interest you?
    • Would you thrive in a large school or a smaller one?
    • What location excites you the most?

    Another helpful tip is to utilize your child’s high school resources, such as their college and career counseling center if it has one.

    Step Two: Research together and create a spreadsheet of safety, target, and reach schools

    Before the internet, parents struggled to find information about colleges and help their kids navigate the application process. Today, the internet offers many different websites to guide you through the college search process, like TeenLife, College Board, Niche, and Grown & Flown. These resources are designed to support you and make the college research process more manageable, giving you the confidence to help your child make informed decisions.

    You and your child can research specific academic programs and majors offered at each school, extracurricular activities and campus culture, financial aid, location, etc. Create a Google Spreadsheet to track and curate your child’s  safety, target, and reach schools. This list will look different for everyone since it’s dependent on many factors, including grades, GPA, and SAT scores.

    Here’s the difference between these three school types:

    • Safety schools:Your child's academic profile exceeds the average admitted student's profile.
    • Target schools: Your child's academic profile matches the average admitted student's profile.
    • Reach schools: Your child's academic profile is below the average admitted student's profile.

    Use these numbers as a guidepost to build a balanced college list that includes a mix of different schools:

    • 2-3 safety schools
    • 3-4 target schools

    Step Three: Visit college campuses in person

    Once your child has been accepted to different schools, visiting each campus is vital to help narrow it down to the final choice. What does the campus feel like? Can your child easily imagine themselves walking through the quad between classes? If possible, schedule campus visits during step two — a university your child thinks they might love may actually give off a vibe they don’t like when they visit. If so, cross that school off the list.

    On the other hand, you might visit another school initially in the “safe” category only to discover that it’s potentially the perfect fit for your student. Your student can also visit colleges while still figuring out what schools they want to apply to.

    Here are some tips for those college visits:

    If your child gets accepted to multiple schools and can’t decide, schedule another visit. On this return trip, your focus will be a bit different. Take plenty of notes and photos on each visit for easy comparison later.

    On your second visit, you can:

    • Re-visit school facilities that are important to you
    • Ask permission to sit-in on a class lecture
    • Talk to more students on-campus
    • Jot down as many details as you can!

    Step Four: Talk about expenses and financial aid

    The cost for an undergraduate degree has risen tremendously over the past 60 years. What used to cost around $5,000 in 1963, now costs nearly $30,000 today – and that’s for an in-state, public school. Private nonprofit schools can cost up to $60,000 a year.

    When making your list of colleges, discuss your family's budget and explore financial aid options together. Neither you nor your child should take on massive loans, leaving you both in debt after graduation.

    On the bright side, many schools offer merit-based scholarships, need-based grants, and work-study programs to help offset the costs — including the more expensive schools. Some colleges guarantee free or greatly reduced tuition for qualified students. Encourage your child to apply for scholarships and do the math to calculate the return on investment (ROI) for different colleges, especially depending on the major your child is considering.

    Being transparent about finances with your child helps set realistic expectations when choosing specific colleges to apply to.

    Step Five: Study and take standardized tests

    Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have always been a critical (yet stressful) part of college admissions. However, since the COVID pandemic, many colleges switched their policies to allow students to opt out of submitting their test scores. It's important to stay updated on the test policies of the colleges your child is interested in.

    According to data from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, over 80% of U.S. colleges won’t require fall 2025 applicants to submit ACT/SAT scores.

    Major public campuses in most states and top institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford will also continue their test-optional policies at least through this fall.

    However, if your child plans on taking and submitting their standardized tests, help them create a study plan and schedule for these exams. Many students benefit from:

    Although many colleges are still test-optional, your child should submit their score if it aligns with or exceeds the school's target scores because it will strengthen their application.

    Step Six: Crafting the personal essay

    Each college application requires different materials and essay prompts. It is a great opportunity for your child to showcase their strengths and individuality. To help them during this process, assist them in:

    • Keeping track of application deadlines and requirements
    • Requesting letters of recommendation from teachers and mentors
    • Writing and revising their personal statement and essays
    • Highlighting extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and volunteer work

    Review your child's final essay a few times to ensure accuracy — and catch any lingering grammar or mechanical errors — before you submit it!

    Step Seven: Choosing the right college – final decision

    Congrats! Once the acceptance letters start rolling in, start celebrating! The only hard work left? Helping your child choose. These questions make good conversation starters.

    • Does the college offer vital programs that fit your interests?
    • Will you feel comfortable and happy in this campus community?
    • Does the college have strong career services and alumni networks?
    • What financial packages are available? How about scholarships and other financial aid?

    As a parent, you are your child's #1 supporter. Encourage them to follow their gut instincts and choose the college where they feel most at home and excited about their future possibilities.

    College Admissions Process: Key Takeaways

    Guiding your child through the college application, admissions, and decision process requires time, effort, research, communication — and likely healthy doses of patience and grace. Start the process early, use whatever methods make sense to you (and your child) to stay organized, and support your child along this exciting journey while keeping the ultimate goal in mind: finding a college where your child will thrive academically, socially, and personally.

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    Eloise Lushina

    Eloise Lushina

    Eloise Lushina is a senior studying Journalism and Film & TV at Boston University. She is from Chicago, Illinois, and was a previous professional actor in television, musicals, and film. Now, her interests lie in broader storytelling, which includes broadcast journalism and producing.